Fara’s take on the role of women in science is beautifully and fortuitously timed given the recent gender-brain-difference conjectures of Harvard’s president.
Cambridge historian and philosopher of science scholar Fara (Newton: The Making of Genius, 2002, etc.) contends that far from the romantic vision of the (male) lonely genius striving to divest (mother) nature of her secrets, the geniuses, inventors and innovators glorified in science biographies and texts were aided and abetted by their womenfolk. Wives, lovers and sisters showed the intellectual curiosity and learned the math and science that enabled them to make creative observations, refine instruments, record the data, illustrate the texts and write popularizations of their menfolk’s work. Fara concentrates on the 18th century—the age of enlightenment (but not so for women, those fragile inferiors forbidden access to universities and expected to devote themselves to the domestic arts). In a series of detailed chapters, she profiles Elisabetha Hevelius, Johannes’s sister; Caroline Herschel, William’s sister; Marie Paulze Lavoisier, Antoine’s wife; along with some chapters that focus on earlier and later times and the women in the lives of Descartes, Leibniz and Newton, ending with an essay on Mary Shelley. It helped that these women almost always had a father or an elder brother who recognized their talents and encouraged them, and that the families were rich enough to provide the resources. To her credit, Fara does not in turn glorify them, but presents well-rounded portraits: women, sometimes humble and masochistic; other times vain, intemperate, even unfaithful. Her final essay on Shelley and Frankenstein is a gem in which she points out the many conflicts in Shelley’s own mind about the role of women and about science itself, one that resonates only too well with today’s growing ambivalence toward science as unleashing a Pandora’s box of evils. (The “breeches” of the title is a reference to a caricature of a woman scientist devoid of all femininity.)
A noble effort to change the record and the culture . . . but plus ça change….